'Abstinence-Only' Sex Ed May Change Attitudes
Unclear If Programs Also Change Teen Sexual Behavior
WebMD News Archive
June 14, 2005 -- Students who participate in one year of
"abstinence-only" sex education classes are significantly more likely
than those who don't to have a negative view of teen sex, an interim government
The report offers what experts called the first reliable, if early, evidence
that controversial abstinence-only programs funded by the federal government
are able to change attitudes about sex before marriage.
But researchers stress that they do not yet have evidence showing whether
the classes actually lead to any delay or avoidance of sexual activity later on
or whether teens who choose to have sex despite the abstinence message use
condoms or other contraception.
"We know that there are a lot of youths who expect to abstain and do
not, or vice versa," says Rebecca Maynard, one of the study's investigators
from the University of Pennsylvania.
The preliminary study looked at three federally funded abstinence-only sex
education programs used in middle schools in Florida, Mississippi, and
Wisconsin, as well as one elementary school program in Virginia. Researchers
surveyed 952 students taking more traditional sex education classes and 1,358
students who attended abstinence-only education.
The abstinence programs differ in content and message, but all tell students
that avoiding sex is the only foolproof way to prevent pregnancy and sexually
transmitted diseases. The classes also focus on building youths' self-esteem
and improving communication skills but don't instruct students on the use of
Changes in Attitudes
Overall, students enrolled in abstinence-only classes were 8% more likely to
take a positive view of abstinence and 7% more likely to hold a negative view
of teen sex. The differences were confined to two of the four programs, though
the report's authors called the results "strong evidence" that the
classes had altered student's attitudes about sex after one year.
The programs "result in youths holding or supporting views that were
more supportive of teen abstinence and less supportive of teen sex," says
Maynard. The study was conducted by Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy
Research and commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Abstinence-only programs also appeared to convince more students that
premarital sex carries potential consequences. But the study found that the
classes had little or no additional impact on students' self-esteem or on their
ability to talk about sex with their parents.
Forty-seven percent of high school students reported having had sex at least
once in 2003, down from 54% in 1991, according to the CDC. About 425,500
teenage girls gave birth in 2002, though teenage birth rates dropped sharply
from 62 to 43 per 1,000 births since 1991, according to the agency.
"Abstinence education has contributed to this decline," says Bridgit
Maher, family and marriage policy analyst with the Family Research Council, a